Oakmont is a player's club

Updated: June 10, 2007, 11:46 PM ET
By Tim Rosaforte | Golf World

Mark Bope is the typical Oakmont CC member. He plays off a 1-handicap, has a white-collar job in Pittsburgh (selling architectural and building supplies out of an office near Heinz Field and PNC Park), regularly competes in the club's Swat competition, passionately loves the game and is proud of Oakmont's history and its mighty course. His name is on a plaque in the clubhouse, for back-to-back club championships in the early 1980s.

Bope remembers being in the parking lot at the club with his father on a Sunday in 1973, when Johnny Miller walked by, carrying the clubs he would use to shoot 63 and win the U.S. Open later that day. Bope stood behind the second green in 1978 when John Mahaffey made an impossible putt in sudden death to beat Tom Watson and Jerry Pate in the PGA Championship. But he'll never forget that day in 1977 when he got a call saying he was accepted for membership. Just 23, after playing for the University of North Carolina golf team, he drove over to the club at 5 p.m., nervously teed a ball at No. 1, looked around to see if anyone was watching from the historic landmark that serves as a clubhouse, and popped his drive straight up in the air.

"This is Pittsburgh," Bope says. "It has a different flavor. To me it's not a city, it's a hometown. And if you live in this town, and people know you're a member at Oakmont, they look up to you a little bit. That means something to me."

Bope is talking about pride, not elitism. The one thing you learn hanging out at the club for a couple of days is there are no attitudes at Oakmont. It may be a favorite of the USGA and its national championships -- this will be Oakmont's eighth U.S. Open, a record -- but it is not a blue-blood, blue-blazer type of place. "There's no 'checking of the egos at the door,' because they don't have any," says national member Bob Jermain. "Everyone's been humbled there, so there's no 'peacocking.'"

Maybe not, but there is a palpable sense of honor in being an Oakmont member, of being able to play a course day in and day out that boasts a roster of tournament winners including Gene Sarazen, Tommy Armour, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Miller, Mahaffey, Larry Nelson and Ernie Els. And they play just about year-round, despite those famed Pittsburgh winters when the Steelers and Penguins are doing their thing a few miles down the Allegheny River. "Our motto is, 'If it doesn't snow, we have to go,' " says Paul Mazeski, a 44-year-old attorney who joined when he was 22. "The golf course never closes. If they can keep it open, they keep it open."

Mazeski, a plus-1, is one of 198 players among the club's 560 members with single-digit handicaps. That's an impressive percentage, and it's worth noting most scores are posted from the tips, which carry a course rating of 78.3 and a slope of 150. Oakmont may be a "country club," but it is very much a golf club in the purest sense -- to the point that founder Henry Fownes' son, W.C., the long-time member of the USGA's Implements and Ball Committee, resigned his presidency when the club started discussing a swimming pool.

There isn't a water hazard on the course -- just 18 of the meanest greens in golf. You don't lose balls at Oakmont -- you just lose your mind. "We putt everything out," says club president Bill Griffin. "And the 12-inch putts around here are by no means gimmes."

Those greens were a big part of last year's club championship. Oakmont members like to boast that their tournament, held the second week in July, is set up as hard as the national championship, and the format nearly mirrors the Open's as well -- 54 holes in three days (it used to be 72 holes), with a 36-hole cut. Malcolm Spatz, 25, took last year's title over Jim Sullivan, the decisive blow a staked 5-iron on 18. A hole earlier Spatz and Sullivan both drove the par-4 17th green and made eagle. The latter righted the ship for Spatz who had fallen victim to Oakmont's famed greens at 15 (4 putts) and 16 (3). "It's such a thrill to compete on a golf course like that, with the greens the way they are, and its history," says Spatz, who started playing Oakmont when he was 8, and has won two junior titles and three club championships.

Oakmont's head professional, Bob Ford, sets the tone for the club's level of play. Ford, 53, has won two PGA of America National Stroke Play Championships, played in nine PGAs and four U.S. Opens, and has been the Tri-State PGA Player of the Year a record nine times. In 1983 he made the cut in the Open at Oakmont, but he is best known around the club for the outcome of an intraclub match a few years ago: Ford beat the best-ball of Bope, Jermain and another member, Stan Druckenmiller. "He's the best [playing] club pro in America," says another former club champ, Chick Wagner. "It's no contest."

There is also no contest when it comes to measuring the course's degree of difficulty. Designed more than 100 years ago by Fownes, a Pittsburgh industrialist, Oakmont punishes like the Steelers' old Steel Curtain defense, starting with a "Mean" Joe Greene of an opening hole and ending with an 18th that's tougher than Jack Lambert. "Even though Mr. Fownes originally had No. 1 as a par 5, I love the way it just smacks you right in the mouth," Druckenmiller said. "It's so easy to make a double there. It's so emblematic of Oakmont."

There may not be a more important member at Oakmont right now than Druckenmiller. Without his generosity, the 2007 U.S. Open would have been played somewhere else. He donated the money to the Fownes Foundation to build the spectator bridge over the Pennsylvania Turnpike, addressing the one problem the USGA had with the club after the 1994 Open. But around the club he is just known as "Stan," and many of his peers, according to long-time club member John Birmingham, probably couldn't pick him out of a lineup. "Stan is just a regular guy," says another former club champ Rich Berglund, who works as the Adams Golf rep in Pennsylvania.

Bope and Druckenmiller were part of a class invited to join the club 30 years ago when Oakmont was looking to infuse its membership with younger, better players. The initiation fee was $5,000 (today it's $75,000). Early on, they didn't really run in the same circles but became close, as many Oakmont members do, through a traditional competition that goes back to Fownes called the Swat. Four-man teams, with an A, B, C and D player, compete in a better-ball Nassau. ("It's a great idea," says Phil Boxwell, 54, part owner of a Pittsburgh medical products company, a 6-handicap and an Oakmont member for 18 years. "If you don't have a game that day, you call the club at 10 and by 11 you're on the tee. How good is that?") Two important rules: no strokes given and all putts holed.

In one memorable Swat incident, Druckenmiller -- then suffering from the yips brought on by Oakmont's perilous greens -- left a 20-footer for birdie on the par-5 ninth 14 feet short. His immediate plea -- "It's not my fault" -- was met by stony silence from his teammates, who were all out of the hole and needed Druckenmiller's best effort. Bope finally broke the tension: "Well, if it's not your fault, whose fault is it?" At Druckenmiller's annual golf outing later that year, an event when the greens roll 15 on the Stimpmeter, everyone wore "It's Not My Fault" T-shirts.

But everyone has a horror story. Boxwell was playing one day and came to the second hole, a short par-4. The pin was in the front half of the green, in the center. His second shot was about 10 feet long, leaving him a slippery downhill putt. Boxwell gave it his lightest tap, and the ball still rolled past the hole and finished in the front fringe. He chipped his fourth with an 8-iron; the ball didn't quite make it to the hole and started rolling back, all the way off the green, past Boxwell and down the fairway. His fifth was a flop with a sand wedge.

"To make a long story short," he recalls, "I was on the green in two shots and made 8. When you hear that story you'd say I never played golf." If it's any consolation, Ernie Els made a 7 on the second hole of the playoff that concluded the 1994 Open -- and he went on to win.

Druckenmiller, who guided George Soros' Quantum Fund into one of the most famous and successful hedge funds in Wall Street history, has since overcome the yips but is hopelessly giddy in his love of Oakmont. He sponsors a caddie scholarship and has cried at the club's annual caddie banquet -- an event Bope has not missed in 30 years. "I just have an affinity to middle-class kids or kids just below that level who haven't had the chance country-club kids have in life, and there's a wholesomeness about the Pittsburgh kids," said Druckenmiller, who has lived in New York for 20 years but feels as though his deepest friendships are in Pittsburgh. "The people are just friendlier," he said. "They wear their hearts on their sleeves. They're my kind of people."

Walking to the ninth tee one day in 2001, Ford told Druckenmiller that an Open would not return without a new bridge to handle the overflow of spectator traffic. Druckenmiller told Ford to call his secretary and she would write the check. The USGA couldn't make the offer fast enough, for both an Amateur and an Open, cementing Oakmont's spot in the rotation. "To me it just wasn't right that this place, which had such a history and hosted so many Opens, would have all that come to an end because of a crowd logjam," Druckenmiller said. "I've been extremely fortunate in life to make more money than I'll ever need. Oakmont is a special place to me, and its history was going to die. I couldn't afford to let it die."

So when Tiger Woods visited recently, it made sense that he play with Druckenmiller and Ford, and that after dinner, they would watch a tape of the club's history together. Though intent on shirking publicity, it's clear Druckenmiller has become the club's new patriarch, "starting a new history," as Birmingham put it. The week of the Open, Druckenmiller will stay in the "Pro's Cottage," a house along the 18th fairway that was once the home of Ford and his predecessor, Lew Worsham, the 1947 U.S. Open champion.

Ford and his family moved to a home on 10th Street and Hulton Road, just a few blocks from the club, a relocation that represents just one way the club has evolved since its last Open in 1994. The Pro's Cottage, along with the club's gatehouse, is booked a year in advance, mostly by the club's national members and their guests. That influx of out-of-towners fills up the tee sheet and annoys some of the club's veteran members, who remember their course being less crowded and want their old Oakmont back.

But while the downtown has been revitalized and U.S. Steel's stock jumped 60 percent in 2006, Pittsburgh isn't the thriving city it was in 1985, when 15 Fortune 500 companies were based there. The top executives at Alcoa, Gulf Oil and Heinz used to rub elbows in the men's grill with beer distributors like Frank Fuhrer. "In its heyday, there were more major corporations headquartered in Pittsburgh than any city," says former club president Banks Smith, the man credited with Oakmont's much-discussed tree-cutting campaign. Now, it's not unusual to see Jermain from Carlyle Blue Wave in New York and Bart O'Connor from Candence Capital in Boston or Bob Lancaster from Huntington Beach, Calif. Jermain and O'Connor entertained groups of clients for five straight weeks during one stretch before the Open.

Fuhrer is an old-schooler who used to sponsor the Family House tournament that attracted all the game's top names. His son, Frank III, is one of the club's most accomplished players, having played in seven U.S. Amateurs, a Walker Cup, as well as the 1982 Masters and U.S. Open. The older Fuhrer says Oakmont has become, "damn near like a resort club," but the out-of-town members and guests keep the costs down, so there isn't much formal complaining. You get the feeling one of the members' favorite things is hosting guests, both because they are proud of their golf course and love to show it off, and because they love to spread what Boxwell calls "our masochistic side" around.

"Some people like to see their guests take a beating," admits Bope.

Adds Griffin: "The members love to be punished out there, but nothing satisfies us more than a guest walking off the course shaking his head."

In the club's Swat Room, there has always been a lot of head-scratching, mostly over tales of horror like the time Jermain four-putted from six inches ("honest," he says) in front of Druckenmiller. Since 1955 every Swat match has been recorded in the ledger book, the volumes today line rows of bookshelves.

"Oakmont had more characters in the old days," said Birmingham, a former club champion who used to play on weekends with his father and Sam Parks Jr., who won the 1935 Open at Oakmont and later became a member. "Merrill Stewart, who ran the Swat, was the biggest character of them all. I remember him standing at the dual bar between the locker room and the Swat Room, cleaning his glasses with vodka, and driving home in a golf cart."

One club character who is still around is Johnny Garbo, the caddie who looped for Arnold Palmer in the 1962 Open. Now 88, he serves as starter and ranger, but recalls the days when he walked from his home on Fifth Street and got 75 cents for 18 holes. "When I was growing up, if I wanted spending money, I had to come up here and caddie to get it," Garbo said. "That was back during The Depression."

Many members have homes on the tree-lined streets that flank Hulton Road from downtown Oakmont. Wagner, who joined the same year as Bope and Druckenmiller, lives five blocks from Ford. Berglund is also in the neighborhood. Tom Usher, an Augusta National member and the czar of Laurel Valley GC, lives on 12th Street.

"It's Mayberry USA," Smith said. A Walgreens just opened, but it's still very much the same Oakmont it was for generations. There's Brr-Kee's Ice Cream, Cosnotti's Barber Shop, the Oakmont Bakery, the Oakmont Tavern (where the veteran caddies hang out at night), a single-screen theater called The Oaks and local restaurants like Hoffstot's and the Chelsea Grille. For breakfast and lunch, everybody congregates at What's Cooking at Casey's, but it's hard to beat the Cheeseburger Soup at the club. "If you're from Oakmont, you kind of stay in Oakmont," Berglund said. "It's almost like you don't go across the bridge. They put a gate at the entrance to the club, but the gate's never closed. That's how unpretentious it is."

Surprisingly -- considering his shocking loss in the 1962 U.S. Open -- Arnold Palmer loves the place, and he enjoys his honorary membership. During the summers, when he's home in nearby Latrobe, Pa., it isn't unusual for Palmer to drive down for the day and play the course. Last July, teeing off with Ford, he hit his drive on the first hole and received an ovation from the members in the clubhouse and at the swimming pool. Palmer gave the admirers his best presidential wave and thumbs-up sign, and then turned to Ford. "Bob," Palmer said, "that's what keeps me going."